Human Face

Reporting on the papacy

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With Pope Benedict XVI’s stunning announcement of his resignation from the papacy—the first in almost 600 years—the Catholic world is again praying, speculating, evaluating. The Pope cited reasons of age and health. Who will fill the Shoes of the Fisherman?

A most sought-after Vatican journalist nowadays is John L. Allen Jr., a prize-winning Vatican correspondent for the US publication National Catholic Reporter (NCR). After news on the Pope’s resignation broke, an international television news network had Allen on camera right away.

But it was an Italian journalist—a woman in the male-dominated Vatican—who broke the news first. I didn’t quite catch her explanation on how she had scooped everyone, but she sounded rather humble and matter-of-fact about it.

Allen may be considered the “dean” of Vatican journalists. He is described as “the journalist other reporters—and not a few cardinals—look to for the inside story on how all the pope’s men direct the world’s largest church.”

When the charismatic Pope John Paul II died in 2005, Allen’s revised and updated book “Conclave: the Politics, Personalities and Process of the Next Papal Election” (Doubleday, 2004) became a favorite reference. I got my copy from the Jesuit theologian Fr. Catalino Arevalo, and it served me well when I was assigned to write pieces before and after the conclave.

Arevalo also gave me a primer, “Papal Transition,” a good guide for journalists, by Rev. Thomas J. Reese, SJ (editor in chief of the Catholic weekly America). It answers 27 questions, including what happens when a pope dies, is in a coma or resigns, what happens at the conclave and after it, etc. And for incorrigible gamblers-bettors, Reese provides a one-liner on what website to visit.

Allen also wrote “All the Pope’s Men: The Inside Story of How the Vatican Really Thinks.” Even before Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI in 2005, Allen had already written “Cardinal Ratzinger: The Vatican’s Enforcer of the Faith.”

Allen must have had some inkling of the possibility of Benedict’s resignation, but did he have an idea when? Else he would again have updated “Conclave.” (An Irish seer supposedly predicted in March 2011 the Pope’s “ouster,” but that is another story.)

In “Conclave,” Allen listed the names of the papabile, the cardinals who were strong contenders for the papacy. Now, seven years later, new names have emerged, the Philippines’ 55-year-old Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle among them. Benedict gave him the red beretta only four months ago. Filipinos who think Tagle has a chance in the conclave of 2013 are fantasizing. Just leave it to the Holy Spirit, please.

Most if not all of the cardinal-electors, the men who could be pope, are men of great intellect and high education. A good number of them are peritus, or theological experts. And it is only God who can judge the quality of their inner life and the fruits of their spirituality. Underneath that flowing raiment breathe men with varied backgrounds, interests, and even uncommon personal attributes.

A friend and former classmate who is a contemplative nun based abroad e-mailed me a copy of Allen’s article in the NCR, “Pope Benedict leaves behind legacy full of ups and downs.”

Excerpts: “John Paul II used to be known as the pope of surprises, forever doing things Roman pontiffs simply hadn’t done before. With the election of Benedict XVI, many believed the era of papal novelties had drawn to a close… In the end, however, Benedict XVI proved to be capable of [being] a true stunner, becoming the first pope to voluntarily resign his office in centuries and the first to do so in the modern media-saturated age…

“Immediately, Benedict’s decision has both won wide praise as a responsible and humble act and raised a whole rafter of questions. Chief among them: What exactly will be the role of a retired pope?…

“Benedict’s decision also means the debate over his legacy is now officially open, and as with all things, it’s likely to draw widely different verdicts depending on who’s performing the evaluation.

“Regarded as among the most accomplished Catholic theologians of his generation, Benedict XVI was what church historians call a ‘teaching pope’ as opposed to a governor. His passion was invested in his teaching documents, his speeches on foreign trips, his regular catechesis at the Vatican, and the three books on the life of Christ he published. This teaching often struck people as profound and surprisingly free of ideological edge.

“Even some of the pope’s fiercest critics on other fronts expressed admiration….”

Allen’s piece is a very good read. Find the complete version on the Internet.

In 2005, after the German Ratzinger was elected Pope, I did a column piece, “Ein Papst aus Deutschland” (included in my book that will be out next week). Wrote I:

Interviewed years ago on Bavarian TV, Ratzinger was asked if he really believed the Holy Spirit plays a role in the election of the pope. His answer: “I would not say so in the sense that the Holy Spirit picks out the Pope, because there are too many contrary instances of Popes the Holy Spirit would obviously not have picked. I would say that the Spirit does not exactly take control of the affair, but rather like a good educator, as it were, leaves us much space, much freedom, without entirely abandoning us. Thus the Spirit’s role should be understood in a much more elastic sense, not that he dictates the candidate for whom one must vote. Probably the only assurance he offers is that the thing cannot be totally ruined.”

I agree. But I refer to the Holy Spirit as a she.

(Send feedback to cerespd@gmail.com or www.ceresdoyo.com)

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